Saracens & The Shaming of Scottish Football Governance

by | Nov 9, 2019

On Tuesday, Premiership Rugby Limited (PRL) announced that their reigning champions Saracens face heavy sanctions for breaking the competition’s salary-cap regulations in each of the last three seasons.

The general reaction of England’s sports media was approving, especially from football journalists wearying of English football’s considerable financial governance issues. The Guardian’s David Conn, perhaps the most wearied coverer of English football’s financial maladministration, called Saracens’ 35-point deduction and £5,360,272.31 fine a “thumping judgment,” hailing it “a spectacle of a sport robustly applying its rules.” And this spectacle drew inevitable responses from Scottish football fans, which, in turn, drew wearyingly inevitable responses from Scottish sports journalists.

From within rugby union, Exeter chief executive Tony Rowe made a headline-grabbing but not entirely illogical call for Saracens’ relegation, citing “professional sport in America” where “you get thrown out completely” for salary-cap breaches. His analogy isn’t exact. American professional sports’ tend not to countenance relegation. Incidentally, a 35-point deduction would not have relegated Saracens last season, although it would have prevented them “(ending up) at Twickenham” in Rugby’s Premiership final, via its play-offs, which Rowe asserts could yet happen this season.

Exeter have particular cause to be miffed at Saracens’ activities, which former England and current Harlequins captain Chris Robshaw intriguingly called “cheating to a certain extent.” The Devon club lost the last two Premiership finals to Saracens and their boss Rob Baxter claimed it was “pretty obvious that these titles have been won unfairly.”

However, he stopped short of suggesting that Exeter be awarded those titles, despite Saracens’ narrow, come-from-behind victory in the 2019 final. Displaying admirable integrity, he said “the whole truth” was that while Saracens might not have made the final “with a different group of players,” another club “might have outperformed us on the day.” Anyway, “title-stripping” was not an option, regardless of whether the titles were awarded elsewhere or not at all, as the salary-cap regulations do not facilitate retrospective sanction, or sanction at all beyond points deductions and/or fines.

Ben Chisneros, author of the “Rugby and the Law” blog, found it “really odd” that retrospective action was unavailable. But he added that “it would be incredibly difficult” for clubs to win legal claims for titles or compensation as “the issue of proof would be so complicated.” They would need to “establish that they lost something” or “could have won the Premiership had Saracens not broken the rules. How on earth do you prove that?”

Saracens’ financial misdemeanours are complex. An appeal might have good grounds. And, my hurting head has decided, they are not the concern of this piece. Suffice to say they were thoroughly investigated by a PRL “Independent Panel” without fear or favour. And, after a five-day hearing during September and October, the Middlesex club were found to have “failed to disclose payments to players” and “exceeded the ceiling for payments to players” in “2016-17, 2017-18 and 2018-19.”

Saracens are English rugby’s biggest club and current European champions. The points deduction could conceivably threaten their financial future, as they may struggle to qualify for lucrative European club competitions, especially the Champions Cup. And here (at last) we get to the reason for Scottish football fans’ interest in and reaction to PRL’s robust rules application. The contrast between PRL’s willingness to apply the rules, regardless of the club involved, and Scottish football authorities’ willingness to bend/ignore the rules, BECAUSE of the club involved.

You know the drill. Rangers went unsanctioned for their misdemeanours. Partly because they drowned in a sea of debt anyway. And partly because Scotland’s football authorities covertly agreed that the assets of the liquidated Rangers could transfer to a new club but the liabilities, including sanctions, would not.

Predictably, Celtic fans were especially quick to suggest that PRL had put Scottish football governance to shame. And, predictably, most Scottish football journalists said next-to-next-to-nothing, aware that the Saracens scandal was uncovered by the sort of proper investigative journalism (take a bow, the Daily Mail newspaper’s Laura Lambert and the ‘Sportsmail’ team) which seems far beyond their capabilities.

One exception was the BBC’s Tom English, a rugby man, who seemed to react wholly appropriately, tweeting within an hour of Tuesday’s announcement: “Wow! England’s ‘model’ club exposed. The Saracens success story has a giant asterisk beside it. Should some domestic titles be stripped?” Yet there was a sense that he was taking the p*ss, raising the spectre of title-stripping to raise the hackles of Celtic fans.

It worked, because of course it did. One politer tweet labelled English’s hypocrisy “astounding” and suggested he had “no shame.” English suggested that the tweeter “keep your insults to yourself.” And he noted: “The governing body of the league has found Saracens guilty. Did that happen with Rangers?” This, presumably, was a reference to the then Scottish Premier League’s investigation into Rangers chaired by Lord Nimmo-Smith, among whose many flaws was treating two Rangers player remuneration schemes as one, despite one being unlawful and the other being lawful…at the time, anyway.

And English added on Wednesday that he had been “bombarded by both sides of the Old Firm” in an outbreak of “peak Celtic and Rangers cyber bonkerdom.” He insisted that “not everything is about your clubs, lads. ” And he advised that “sometimes a rugby tweet is simply about rugby and not a subliminal call to arms for the paranoid.”

This would have been easier to believe if English hadn’t specifically asked about title-stripping, He could have answered his own question by checking PRL’s salary-cap regulations. As decent journalists would do; especially as the Mirror newspaper reported Saracens’ sanction as the “maximum,” before his tweet, while the Guardian newspaper directly answered his question just after it. I mean, it took me three minutes to find the relevant paragraph, number 14, which details said penalties.

Unlike many of his Scottish football colleagues, English is a decent journalist. So, I suspect he knew what he was doing (he tweeted that this was “the most predictable response ever,” which was a non-denial denial). And he almost seemed to delight in Celtic fans’ frustrations that Rangers had gone unsanctioned, even for “(failure) to disclose payments to players,” of which Saracens were specifically found guilty. English properly pointed his critics this week to his commentary track record on Rangers finances. Which merely made you wonder what’s changed.

Because it isn’t “bonkerdom” or paranoid to highlight the contrast between PRL’s robust rule application and Scottish football authorities’ robust rule disregarding. Indeed, it is a natural, legitimate response. And EXACTLY what you would expect from a journalist doing their job properly, as Lambert did. That a well-regarded journalist such as English disregards these concerns gives succour to clubs looking to circumvent good governance. Which is the antithesis of responsible journalism.

This still matters. Rangers’ latest accounts reveal a club travelling the same overspending path to financial ruin as its pre-2012 namesake. A lucrative Europa League run is their current main hope of salvation. But the old club’s over-reliance on European revenue proved fatal. Out of Europe entirely in August 2011, they were in administration in February and newspaper sub-editors were writing “Rangers RIP” headlines in June. And the Scottish Football Association (SFA) granting Rangers a licence to play in Europe at all in 2011/12 still rankles with those (of us) who have seen all the paperwork.

However, this isn’t just a Rangers thing anymore. After years of crap TV deals and the like, gate receipts remain a far more significant tranche of Scottish clubs’ incomes than has been the case in England for even more than the Premier League’s financially disfiguring 27-year existence. And two clubs share xx% of the top division’s ground capacity. Thus, Scottish football’s business model is now so over-reliant on those clubs that you suspect rules would be bent backwards for both.

This point is argued all-too-rarely, especially by the other Scottish professional clubs, none financially significant enough to have rules bent for their benefit (although co-incidentally, honest, it was well-made this week by “Fans without Scarves,” a website promoting Scottish football governance reform). Which is another stark contrast between Scottish football and Premiership rugby.

Where Scottish football clubs have largely acquiesced, Premiership rugby clubs have largely not, with representatives from Harlequins, Sale and Northampton joining Exeter in backing Saracens’ sanctions. “Saracens have never courted popularity but they have never been more isolated than now,” noted the Guardian’s Paul Rees on Thursday.

Meanwhile, on the Scottish parks, the ‘Old Firm’ may only be ‘back’ due to Rangers’ salary and transfer overspends. But off the parks, it is very much back, as Celtic chief executive Peter Lawwell vividly demonstrated recently. When Rangers went pop, Celtic made great play of ceasing to use the phrase “Old Firm,” and Lawwell made great play of Celtic’s “stand-alone financial plan” (“we don’t rely on any other club”). But this is now just window-dressing.

Lawwell spent years asking for proof (a “smoking gun”) that the SFA should not have granted Rangers a European licence in 2011. Celtic shareholders who have doggedly and admirably pursued the issue since submitting ‘Resolution 12’ to Celtic’s November 2013 AGM, provided that proof. And Lawwell and the Celtic board will tell this November’s AGM that further action is “not in the interests of the company.”

So, there you have it. Proper Scottish football governance? Not in the interests of its champions. While we watch the “spectacle of Premiership Rugby robustly applying its rules” to ITS champions. And Scotland’s football media stay silent, or take the piss. While English counterparts expose wrongdoing. The contrasts have never been more shameful.